Field of Dreams
Cricket Hill, proof positive that Heaven exists
The tree peonies flourish under Dan Furman's watch as his other, Kasha, looks on.
Photos by Douglas Foulke
Everyone but Dan Furman saw it coming. For some reason, he didn’t predict the lure back to his family business in Thomaston. But really, with a hillside of flouncy flowers in full flush from mid-May to early June, who wouldn’t be drawn back to Cricket Hill? Basically, you couldn’t keep him away. Home was a field dappled with larger-than-life, four-inch plus, show stopping blossoms. It was crepe paper thin petals glistening in varied shades of soft pastel, coupled with an intoxicating aroma floating hither and yon. He returned to help his mother manage the tree peony business when his father fell ill. But who could blame him for staying? Although Dan Furman insists, “I really didn’t plan to do this,” it wasn’t hard to come home to tree peonies.
Dan wasn’t the first family member to succumb to tree peonies. Cricket Hill began with a romance. In 1984, the couple that would become his father and mother attended “that fabled New Haven dinner party,” as Dan Furman describes the event responsible for bringing his parents together. Fortunately for his father, the spring party coincided with tree peony time. For an opening line, he ingeniously handed Kasha a homegrown tree peony flower. She was duly impressed and Litchfield County will never be the same. David and Kasha Furman were married, they moved to Thomaston in 1988, and continued collecting Chinese tree peonies. The inventory expanded. “The minimum order from the Chinese nursery was 200 plants,” Dan explained. Opening a nursery was the obvious next step for the ardent collectors with overflow.
Why Chinese tree peonies? When the collection began, those look-at-me performers were relatively unknown and ungrown in this country. Tree peonies are native to China but can no longer be found in the wild due to habitat destruction. Unlike herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora cultivars), tree peonies send up woody stems that lose leaves but survive as sticks over the winter. Reliably hardy from zones five to nine and generally sufficiently stoic to survive in Litchfield County, some (notably Paeonia rockii) flourish magnificently in zone four climates.
Japanese collectors brought these beauties home and hybridized the plants, creating a line with semi-double flowers showing the bright yellow stamens and pistils in the center. Those Japanese versions were available in this country prior to Cricket Hill’s rise. But the Chinese went for size with fully double flowers in sumptuous shades and combinations of hues. And that look is what lured Kasha. No wonder. They are poetry in plant form. They are hubba hubba with hauteur. This is as close as horticulture comes to designer labels.
Cricket Hill now carries tree peonies of all pedigrees. We’re talking painterly shades with “colors that you just don’t see in flowers,” to quote Dan. Their spectrum includes peaches and coppers as well as simmering shades of bronze and smoky amber and deep blood reds. Plus, Cricket Hill updates its collection continually to include novelties such as the so-called Intersectional (or Itoh) peonies that combine the best attributes of herbaceous peonies with tree peonies. They look like prima donnas, but peonies are a cinch to grow. Give tree peonies rich organic soil and a sunny (but not hot) location. They are amazingly easy to host
Not surprisingly, it looks like Dan Furman is home to stay. Tree peonies were in his blood and a love affair needed no prompting whatsoever. He’s fervently thrown himself into peonies. In addition, Dan has extended the nursery, feeding his own personal fetish for growing fruit and berry plants with a special emphasis on paw paws and persimmons, also available at the nursery. The result: Sensuality on all levels. “It’s a unique slice of the world,” he admits.